Monday, 29 April 2013

Adjusting to Life in Taiwan

I met a compatriot the other day (hello Peter! if you're reading this) who reminded me of a post I wrote what feels like a long time ago now, about my son's attitude to living in Taiwan. This got me thinking about how we've adjusted to life here - what's better, worse, or different from living in the UK, and about our general day-to-day life.

In many ways we have things easy compared to other expats. Neither I nor my husband work for Taiwanese companies and we're married to fellow Westerners, so we're never in a position where we're forced to endure culture shock. If living in another culture ever gets too much, we can just stay home, watch an English language film and indulge in some Western junk food. We can step in and out of life in Taiwan whenever we choose.

We're also lucky to have some lovely Taiwanese friends who are always more than willing to help us with any difficulties we have due to language barriers. I'm looking forward to going on some trips with them over the holiday season. As well as the pleasure of travelling with friends, local people often know much more about an area than is obvious to strangers. In particular, food! I've had so many varied, interesting and delicious meals with friends. They've allowed me access to the great Taiwanese tradition of large groups of friends and relatives sitting down together to dine on numerous dishes of well-cooked, fresh and tasty local produce.

Daily life has settled into a comfortable and pleasant rhythm. Our son's school is five minutes' walk away and the free sports centre with swimming pool is even closer. And, as I find myself telling everyone I meet, a well-stocked supermarket makes up the first floor of our apartment block. This has made us incredibly lazy, and we squabble about whose turn it is to take the 30 second trip in the elevator to buy cat food. I often go for breakfast at the local shop around the corner, where the owner makes me the off-menu green tea he knows I like and my standard breakfast meal of dangao (a kind of pancake with an egg in it). I'm supposed to practise reading Chinese but I spend more time watching the world go by.

Moving from a large village in the UK to a metropolis has brought predictable differences to our lives. Many places, such as museums and restaurants, are a lot more accessible via very cheap public transport. We have no car here because we haven't felt the need for one. Where there isn't a bus or train, we can take a taxi cheaply. On the other hand, life is definitely noisier and, in the inner city, the air is more polluted. The greatest pleasure I've found from moving here is peculiar to Taipei - there aren't many cities in the world where long mountain walks in cool, green shade begin on your doorstep.

Although in many ways our lives are different, some things are constant. We have each other, our cats and our daily habits. These haven't altered significantly from the UK, although our son definitely spends more time on homework than he would back home. (A time commitment that will only increase over the next few years.) I think we expected to be more influenced in by Taiwanese culture in what we eat and do, but instead we seem to have found a balance where we're comfortable.

The worst thing about living in Taiwan is nothing whatsoever to do with Taiwan or Taiwanese culture: it's missing family and friends, a feeling that definitely worsens as time goes by. Skype, Facebook and emails make contact easy these days, but it isn't the same as seeing people face to face. To a certain extent, we make up for this with new friends here, both Taiwanese and fellow expats, such as the great gang over at Parents Place in Neihu and the disparate crowd on Forumosa. But we still miss old friends and relations very much.

Life goes on. Due to a number of different factors, including our privileged position, the extreme convenience of Taipei-living and the warmth and friendliness of Taiwanese people, adjusting to living in Taiwan hasn't felt like much of an adjustment at all. I'm looking forward to our next few years here, and I expect what passes for normality in this house to continue.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Fushan Botanical Garden

Sometimes, visiting the most charming sites in Taiwan takes a little extra effort, and this is true of Fushan Botanical Garden. Geographically, it isn't far from Wulai, which is in easy commuting distance of southern Taipei city but, lying the other side of the mountains, it can only be reached by travelling to Yilan and then turning north again.

Visitor numbers are restricted to 300 a day, by application only, and there's no public transportation available, so we were very lucky to have friends who invited us along on their trip.

Having visited Taipei Botanical Garden, I am already starting to become familiar with some of Taiwan's indigenous plant species, but I was little prepared for the scale of Fushan. At 410 hectares it must rank amongst the largest botanical gardens. Only 30 hectares are open to the public, but that's quite enough for a day's wandering.

Taiwan is home to many indigenous plant and animal species that evolved during its long geographic isolation, and Fushan is a safe haven for many of them. Despite long walks through the mountains around Taipei, I saw many species for the first time at Fushan, as well as old favourites that have taken up residence in the British countryside.
The garden opens at 9 am and visitors must leave by 3.30, so we arrived early to make the most of the time available. We saw two videos about the plants and animals inhabiting the area, and had a short talk by a guide, then we were left to our own devices.

As well as many specimen trees and explanatory signs in English and Chinese, there are hectares of forest, lakes and rivers. We saw Formosan rock monkeys, and heard many frogs croaking in the undergrowth. The clear water of the rivers and lakes was teeming with fish and hovering over them were dragonflies of various sizes and colours.

The area experiences extremely wet weather, with rain falling every two out of three days, which is possibly why there were no mosquitoes. It may also be due to the high altitude, as the garden lies between 400 and 1400 metres above sea level. I'm not sure how high we were, but clouds frequently obscured nearby peaks.

The high humidity created ideal conditions for growth, huge ferns giving the area a prehistoric atmosphere. They grew everywhere, including in the trees.

We spent several hours wandering the gardens, breathing the rich mountain air. I was so glad I wasn't the one who had to drive all the way back to Taipei. I think everyone slept well that night.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cha for Tea

The perfect place to indulge in Taiwan's national obsession, Cha for Tea teahouse restaurants exist all over Taipei and in other major cities in Taiwan. Offering tea in many, many varieties, shapes and forms, Cha for Tea also serve traditional Chinese and Taiwanese dishes, each cooked with a special tea twist. I had the pleasure of visiting one just the other day, and experienced my inevitable, long-anticipated, bubble tea baptism.

Invented in Taichung in the 1980s, bubble tea is a sweet, often milky, tea with added tapioca pearls, usually served cold. Bubble teas are beyond popular in Taiwan. They are almost mandatory, and have gained quite a following around the world. I hadn't tried one yet because, as I explained in an earlier post, I didn't even drink tea before coming here and have only recently developed a taste for unsweetened, plain green tea. My Taiwanese friend ordered me a bubble tea and I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. But very, very sweet, almost like drinking a dessert.

My friend's little girl enjoyed hers, too.

Cha for Tea has an inviting menu, including lots of dumplings cooked imaginatively with tea. We had old favourites and new dishes I hadn't tried before. 

Pork dumplings topped with shrimp.


Wonton soup. Deceptively delicious.

 I like these pork soup dumplings so much. You tear open the pastry with your chopsticks to let the steam escape, then drink the soup and eat the dumpling.
Something I hadn't tried before was this tofu and ham.

Cha for Tea even has deep-fried tea leaves with wasabi powder to nibble.
Dessert was a choice of green tea jelly or green tea cake. My son's become a big jelly fan so no trouble guessing which he went for.
Cha for Tea  - so many delicious dishes, so much tea!

Sunday, 7 April 2013


Lying directly south-east of Taipei, Yilan county combines mountains, waterfalls, beaches and hot springs, making it a popular destination for city dwellers in need of a short break. The recent Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping Festival, saw us, along with thousands of others, heading there to take advantage of the four-day weekend.

It was difficult to choose from the area's many offerings. The train line passes through Ruifang, Toucheng, Jiaoxi, Yilan and Luodong. Ruifang is the stopping off point that leads to the former gold-mining areas Jinguashi and Jiufen, but we'd visited these places on a previous holiday a few years ago. Toucheng is near some beautiful beaches and Guishan Island, but spring weather is unpredictable. Yilan city itself doesn't host many attractions. Luodong is famous for its night market, river path and Traditional Arts Museum. Our final decision was based on a shocking omission: in all our time in Taiwan, we have never visited a hot spring spa. So Jiaoxi it was to be.

We booked the Art Spa Hotel and used the national rail online booking system to book our train tickets, to be picked up at Taipei Main Station no less than half an hour before departure. Travelling by train used to be the usual way to reach Yilan, but a recently-built freeway tunnel through the mountains has opened up access considerably. Now, buses from Taipei take less than half the time of a rail journey. But I find travelling by train more pleasant, and there are beautiful mountain- and sea-views along the route.

I pitied the poor travellers who bought their tickets even later than us. The trains we took during Qingming were packed with stoic passengers standing in the aisles for hours at a time. With announcements and signs in English as well as Chinese, it was easy to navigate our way through the system.

Our hotel was only two minutes' walk from the station and we were quick to make ourselves at home.
Just relaxing.
The bathroom was equally inviting:
We could indulge in a private spa bath in our own room or take advantage of the hotel's on-site spa complex. Being a big fan of long, hot baths in general, I was deeply impressed with the hotel's spa. Every possible method of soothing the body with hot spring water that I could think of was available, plus a few more previously beyond my imagination. We could choose from large pools of hot, still, scented water, cool pools for the over-heated, large baths with spa jets to direct water from numerous directions, body-long shower beds to lie on as hot water cascaded down, jets of pressured water to provide deep massages, and slides, fountains, and ever-filling buckets for children. Saunas and hot slabs were also available, plus, I'm sure, other equipment I've failed to remember. It was spa heaven.

In the afternoon we wandered into town to find the spa theme continued. Restaurants had under-table hot spring water to soak your feet in as you eat.

There were also large pools of fish that eat dead skin from feet, for general use. These were so popular I began to feel a little sorry for the fish. So many feet to service!

Fairground-style games stalls lined one street, along with the inevitable street food vendors.

A happy, holiday feeling permeated the atmosphere.

Unfortunately the holiday ended the following morning. Heavy rain delayed our leaving the hotel and as the morning progressed, my son felt more and more unwell. We returned to Taipei that evening.

The planned expedition for the day had been to visit Longtan Lake, which promised some pleasant, easy walking in the fresh spring air. Other, more famous sights were bound to be very busy on a holiday weekend, so I wanted to leave Wufengqi Falls for another visit. Another popular place is Lanyang Museum, famous for its interesting architecture alone.
Our too-brief visit to Yilan county was a highly enjoyable, tantalising taster of the region's many promising possibilities.